For her second stint behind the camera, Brigitte Sy has brought together two of the most talented of a younger generation of French actors – Reda Kateb and Lei¨la Bekhti. And they are unmatched as the ill-fated lovers Julien and Albertine drawn from the autographical novel written by the young, Algerian-born Albertine Sarrazin in 1965 .The novel was published to great public and critical success and was made into a film in 1968 by director Guy Casaril with Marlene Jobert in the lead role. Although shot entirely in black and white, Sy’s adaptation is a modern, compelling story of a young woman who has had a tough start in life. Forced to live on the margins of society, she never loses her spirit or becomes crushed by the reality of her day-to-day existence. Bekhti’s Albertine is sensitive, but never self-pitying while Kateb gives a masterly performance as the emotionally distant Julien who eventually finds his soul mate.
L’Astragale opens with the 19-year-old Albertine scaling the wall of the prison where she is serving a seven year sentence for robbery. She falls and breaks an ankle bone – the astragale of the title – which brings her daring prison escape to an abrupt halt. She is rescued by Julien who takes her to a friend in Paris where she can recover and remain hidden from the police. Julien picks up his criminal life in the provinces and returns from time to time to visit Albertine, now known as Sophie. Eventually Julien is arrested and sent to prison and Albertine fends for herself by becoming a prostitute. Through all the tough times, she keeps a diary and continues to believe that she will be reunited with Julien, the one, true love of her life.
Set among the shady world of criminals and prostitutes, Sy’s film deals less with the drama and excitement of life on the lam than with the figure of Albertine herself. This is an intimate portrait of a young woman who is forced to take control of her life and make choices at a time when women were still largely economically dependent on men. The choices are stark, but Albertine is resourceful and her passion for Julien gives her an inner strength. L’Astragale
‘s finest moments are the scenes with Albertine and Julien together. Bekhti and Kateb worked together on Jacques Audiard’s award winning Un Prophète
(A Prophet) and make a hugely charismatic couple. But it’s definitely fire and ice. Albertine is all passion and poetry while Julien is strong and silent and yet their love for each other is palpable.
Bekhti found box office gold in 2010’s Tout ce qui Brille
(All that Glitters) and went on to star in Philippe Claudel’s Avant L’Hiver
(Before the Winter Chill) and more recently Serge Frydman’s heist movie Maintenant ou Jamais
proving just how versatile an actor she is. Kateb is one of the few French actors to work in both the US (Kathyrn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Ryan Gosling’s Lost River) and at home (Hippocrate, Qui Vive, Loin des Hommes
) and he has a truely riveting screen presence. Both Sy’s offspring are cast in the film. Esther Garrel is Marie, Albertine’s partner in crime and former lover. It’s a sketchy role leaving little for Garrel to work with. Her brother Louis has a much smaller part. He was excellent as the brooding Jacques de Bascher in Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent
and it’s a shame he doesn’t figure more prominently. Sy’s late 1950s France with the background of the Algerian war is lovingly recreated with the attention to detail adding to the authenticity of the story. Good movie, great cast, well worth a look.